When my mother was my age, she went travelling across India. She drank warm cans of cola on train journeys as the sun-soaked fields and rivers flew past her window. She saw the shimmering reflection of the Taj Mahal, and poured through street markets of fabric, awash with fuchsia and gold. She met people, and laughed, and told stories. She saw the world. She learnt more about herself. It was, she tells me, magical.
Flash forward to 2023. As you might have noticed, things aren’t going great for the climate. There’s a 50% chance that the annual global temperature rise will hit 1.5°C (supposedly the “safe limit” for climate change) by 2026. In the past year, Europe has experienced record-breaking heatwaves. The Yangtze river dried up and flooding left a third of Pakistan underwater. And the window for meaningful action is rapidly closing.
“What we do over the next three to four years”, said Professor Sir David King, Former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government, “is going to determine the future of humanity”. That was in 2021.
I have been working in the climate sector for five years. In my paid job, I help businesses to accelerate their climate goals. Outside it, I disrupt AGMs, organise protests and tell the stories of activists on the frontline of the climate fight. Our government is asleep at the wheel. COP28 will be run by the CEO of an oil company. But, I tell myself, that doesn’t matter. We – the people – can pick up the slack. We can force them to look, and listen, and care. We can make them act.
I believe it is a privilege to be alive right now, when we can still change things. When we can still avert millions, perhaps billions, of deaths.
Except, I want a break. And more than that. I want to travel, and meet people, and see the world. I want to eat stale peanut butter sandwiches on endless train journeys. I am a 28 year-old climate activist. But I am also a 28 year-old.
The true cost of travel
How do I reconcile my dreams of travelling with my climate conscience? For one, there’s the environmental impacts of going abroad. Flying is pretty much the worst thing you can legally do to the planet (unless you’re a CEO or a politician). But there’s also the cost of taking yourself out of the climate fight at such a critical period in history. I believe in regenerative activism; that a week or two of rest can leave you refreshed and emboldened for new action. But six months is harder to justify.
Reading that back, it sounds arrogant. “Do you really believe”, I hear my inner critic sneer, “that the future of humanity depends on whether you go backpacking in Thailand?” But don’t we have to believe this, on some level, to stay sane? If we perceive ourselves as infinitesimally small amidst The Grand Scheme of Things, why wouldn’t we just stay at home and weep softly in front of Gogglebox? We must believe that we are useful, that our actions matter, whilst remaining critical about which efforts have the best chance of systemic change. Throwing in the towel and agreeing that my choices make a negligible difference to humanity’s future would go against everything I’ve fought for. I’m not ready for that.
And there’s something else, too. My climate work keeps my hopes alive – and my fear and guilt at bay. Without it, what am I left with? Instead of being filled with wonder, what if I spend those train journeys playing out catastrophic mental scenarios of civilisational collapse? What if I am forced to reckon with the weight of my own privilege; the fact that I can, for now at least, “take a break” from the climate emergency? What if I look at my own actions, really look, and realise how much I have failed; how little I have sacrificed? What if I actually “find myself”, and I don’t like what I see?
I quit my job in March, but these questions have not gone away. I have, though, found some ways to justify this decision to myself. Perhaps I am now trying to justify it to you, too.
What if I actually “find myself”, and I don’t like what I see?
Travel in a climate crisis
Firstly, not all ‘travelling’ is created equal. If we buy into the ‘personal footprint’ school of environmental action, there are ways to tread more lightly. You can choose slow travel options like trains and buses (and, if you’re using annual leave, convince your workplace to adopt a slow travel policy too). You can also embrace forms of tourism that are less exploitative, like replacing Airbnb with Fairbnb to support local communities.
When I’m struggling to step out of the “emergency” mindset, I’ve found it can be useful – cautiously – to consider that I don’t hold the world’s future squarely on my shoulders. I believe that individual actions can trigger enormous consequences, but I also know that this process isn’t predictable. The amount of work I do does not correlate directly with my “world-saving” impact. The greatest change might come from attending yet another protest or business meeting. But it could also emerge from an idea I have whilst I’m weeding potatoes, or the Raveller article that I finally have time to write. I can make educated guesses, but ultimately I don’t know.
Can we take this even further? Might a prolonged break from our everyday mindsets, and a chance to see more of the human and natural world, actually make us better activists? Might it help us to become more compassionate, more thoughtful and more effective? Jo Musker-Sherwood, former Founder and Director of Hope for the Future, writes beautifully about the role of holidaying for climate professionals:
“My holidays rarely failed to connect me with the parts of myself that I often had to put to the side; the parts of myself that needed complete headspace to let my mind wonder, that needed some good long lie ins, that needed to bask in nature and remember why I do the work that I do. During holidays these parts of myself would fill up their cup, renewing my creativity and resilience.”
As changemakers, we need urgency – but we also need space. There is a certain kind of thought that comes from stepping outside a system or a lifestyle, and considering the alternative. Asking the questions we are normally scared to ask, and exploring the solutions we are rarely brave enough to hope for.
Seeing more of the world than my limited, global north bubble may bring wonder, and pain, and inspiration. There is evidence that emotions like awe can help to increase climate action – perhaps because it helps us to transcend our narrow sense of ourselves and recognise our interdependence with the natural world. And for people already aware of climate change, seeing its impacts up close can also spur greater action. Travelling is an opportunity to bear witness to the changes I write about every day but remain so afraid of. It is a chance to see how others face, and fight them.
Travel offers space for learning, too. Over the next few months, I am planning to live in a self-sufficient community through the international wwoofing network, where I will learn the basics of regenerative agriculture. I have spent years advising businesses to implement less harmful farming practices, but I’ll have a better idea of what I’m demanding if I’ve tried it myself. Wwoofing is also effectively free (volunteers work part-time in exchange for room and board), helping to alleviate the guilt about whether I should donate all my travel costs to an environmental charity. If you want to take this further, you can even find ways to travel whilst continuing your activism – like volunteering onboard a Sea Shepherd boat. I certainly hope to use my newfound time to do more climate writing and digital campaigning.
A final thought occurs to me, as I write this piece. If we cannot allow ourselves joy, wonder and deep appreciation of nature, then what – after all – are we fighting for? Why would we fixate on saving for the future what we cannot experience when it is in front of us? As my friend and fellow Raveller Naomi writes in her piece about being pregnant during the climate crisis, “I wanted to participate in life: in its continuation, beautiful blossoming, and unravelling”.
My ambition for myself, and for those of you travelling physically or emotionally at the moment, is that we do not force ourselves to leave our climate hopes and fears behind. May we carry them with us consciously, conscientiously. Not like a tattoo to be whipped out at the beach to impress others, but like a penny tucked into our pocket. Sometimes held tightly, sometimes times let go, sometimes given freely to those we encounter along the way. Some days we will turn them over, and see how they glow in different lights. Some days we will toss them in the air and feel the weight of our luck. And some nights, when there are no stars in sight, we will throw them up to the sky, and wish.